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Oklahoma Lawmaker Wants to Quell Big Brother Fears with Open Data

In an exclusive Q&A with Government Technology, Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, talks candidly about legislative efforts to use technology to improve open government and maintain high IT security standards.

by / June 17, 2014
Jason Murphey, Oklahoma state representative David McNeese

Since taking office in January 2008, Oklahoma Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, has been waist-deep in most of the complex technology policy issues facing the Sooner State. From spearheading computer system consolidation efforts to emphasizing the importance of open government, Murphey takes pride in applying his knowledge as a software developer to his role as a public servant.

In an interview with Government Technology, Murphey discussed how his background has helped him as a legislator and how he’d like technology to empower citizens to keep tabs on the data government collects on them.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Government Technology: How has your background as a software developer prepared you for the challenges of a state lawmaker, and do you find yourself being “too technical” at times when explaining an IT concept?

Jason Murphey: I think it’s very helpful, when speaking about anything IT-related, to have a concept of what is involved. But it’s a personal goal of mine to explain IT concepts in a way that doesn’t automatically bore the listener or turn them off. I [can't] always answer how successful I am at it, but it’s always a goal to strike a balance between technical and understandable to everyone. If I don’t strike that balance, it’s a failure on my part.

GT: One idea that is gaining traction in some state legislatures is enabling the public to draft legislation on a topic through crowdsourcing. What are your thoughts on it?

JM: I think that you’ll see more and more of that going forward. The challenge will be adoption – how heavily it is used and if it justifies … the effort. One of the barriers that we face is that those in the constituency who are involved enough to want to impact legislation, will probably do it using email and direct contact as opposed to happening on a crowdsource [platform]. But I think it will eventually be social media that drives its adoption. Right now it’s at that awkward stage where public awareness just isn’t there yet.

GT: What are a couple of the technology issues you tackled legislatively this past session, and why do you feel they are important for the state?

JM: Almost every action of a government agency can be classified as a shared process which multiple agencies endeavor in, but which are siloed to the point that they do not realize the efficiencies of shared service with that process. This year we advanced legislation -- [House Bill 2809] -- that would start to allow our central services officials to define what a shared process is, to use technology to both provide transparency and efficiency in the way those processes are carried out and shared amongst agencies.

It’s really the opportunity to take technology-based transparency concepts that can really measure the output of a service and the quality of a deliverable. Once measured, find those agencies that are doing the best job of doing that, and the agencies that could benefit most from working with other agencies to do a better job. Quantify it and make it transparent through a public dashboard so the public can see.

We’ve been building the framework for this. And if the intent of our legislation is carried out, it should forever change Oklahoma state government from a government of many siloes called agencies and inefficiencies, to processes that are shared amongst agencies, which provide a deliverable that can be measured by objective, quantifiable metrics established in an open, transparent way that anyone can see.

GT: You’re the chair of the state’s Government Modernization Committee. Talk about the committee’s work and what it has been able to accomplish for Oklahoma.

JM: It was created in 2009 with the goal of having a specific venue in which we talked about the application of technology for the purposes of both transparency and efficiency. It came out of an interim study where we looked at the state’s purchasing process and found that there were a number of inefficiencies … and in some cases, a failure to use technology as a whole.

Since 2009, that committee has repeatedly advanced efficiency and transparency proposals. Every year there are a new series of them. Then in the legislative interim, the committee has served as a forum by which the ongoing implementation of those proposals are revisited to see if they are having the intended effect.

GT: There’s a lot of talk nationally about data privacy, health IT and drone use. Of those mainstream topics, what are the ones you think Oklahoma is going to have to address over the next couple of years?

JM: Data privacy has been a huge concern. As we talk about transparency, one of our focuses has been on transparency of collected data. So each dataset that’s collected and each component of that set, should be available to the taxpayer with maybe a few public safety exceptions for security reasons.

In 2013, we approved House Bill 1989, which created the Student Data Accessibility and Accountability Act. The idea being that we should start moving forward to the day when a taxpayer can see every dataset collected by a government entity and what other government entities that data is shared with. That way, we can start to have policy discussions about both the collection and sharing of data, security of data once it’s collected, and everything that goes with it.

This year we started working on, but we didn’t win approval for, the concept for that same idea, which we applied to student data, to apply to all government data. Basically there should be a one-stop library where the taxpayer can go and just see what’s there. Not obviously see the underlying data itself, but see what is collected.

As we look at technology and where it’s taking government, one of the major concerns is the big brother idea that government collects a lot of data and it’s going to do a lot of horrible things with new technology. Our [idea] has been one in which we talk about how is the government going to use technology to empower the taxpayer to make sure the government isn’t using technology to harm the taxpayer.

Because if you think about the era in which policy-making is taking place, never before has policymaking needed to catch up with such rapidly evolving technologies. And in that way, we’re setting what will be the ethics of the future. One of those important concepts and ethics that must go forward is the taxpayer’s right to use technology to know what the government is using technology to do, collect, or analyze. And if we can advance that concept, then we’ve put a real check on the government’s ability to use technology to be the obtrusive big brother.

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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